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Meeting New Neighbors: How to Study Your Butterfly Waystation

Use observational skills and basic techniques of field research to study the butterflies and other organisms that visit your garden.

A yellow and black butterfly rests on a plant.

suggested for all grades


This lesson plan can be used as a companion to the Teacher Guide: Planting A Monarch Waystation. The Monarch Waystation is a garden plot with milkweed and native flowering plants, which provides monarchs with the resources they need to sustain their migration and reproduce. Milkweed is the host plant for monarchs, meaning it’s necessary for the continuation of the monarch life cycle. In addition to monarchs, the waystation attracts an array of insects–including other butterfly species. This lesson uses observation and basic techniques of field research to study the butterfly species that visit the waystation.


  • Students will observe and record observations from their waystation or a nature garden.
  • Students will learn firsthand about the interactions between organisms in an ecosystem.
  • Students will practice long-term data collection and analysis.

See learning standards at the bottom.


  • Journals are tools researchers use to record and communicate observations and ideas.
  • Ecosystems are communities of organisms and their physical environments.

  • Living organisms and their physical environments are both dependent on and essential to each other for the overall health of the ecosystem.


20-30 minutes for data collection


Nature gardens at NHM or garden at home/school


  • Butterfly waystation or nature garden
  • Field Journal
  • Pencil
  • Clipboard (optional)


  • Organism
  • Outdoor classroom
  • Field journal
  • Data collection
  • Data literacy
  • Data analysis


  1. Students will spend half of a determined data collection period observing, journaling, and drawing what they see.
  2. Halfway through the data collection period, students will produce charts or graphs representing the information they've collected.
  3. Students will evaluate the quality of the data they've collected and make a plan for moving forward with improved data collection methods.
  4. Students will implement changes for the second half of the data collection period.
  5. Students will interpret and share the data they've collected.

Getting Started

If you haven't built your butterfly waystation yet, start here or use an available nature space (like your school garden or backyard) to observe butterfly habitats. Introduce students to the concept of an outdoor classroom: an open-air space outside of the traditional classroom, where students are encouraged to learn through experiencing and interacting with the natural world around them. (See Using The Outdoor Classroom for more information.)

Explain to your students that they’ll be making observations and taking field notes in their journals in order to study a butterfly waystation. A  journal is an essential tool for scientists of all fields (biologists, chemists, geologists, botanists, paleontologists, etc.), who use them to record observations, data, questions, stories, and ideas about what they notice and experience. Journal entries are often referenced over and over to review data, develop questions, and rethink ideas. You can obtain or craft your own field journals, or download and print field journals for your students here. At the butterfly waystation or garden, students will use field  journals to record information about the ecosystem they are observing. Students will record and draw the different organisms they observe, noting any changes from previous data collection, and describing any interactions between life forms (e.g. caterpillars eating leaves, insects eating other insects, etc.) and changes in life cycle stages of organisms.

In each journaling session: 

  1. RECORD THE BASICS: Make sure to record the date, the time of day, and the weather conditions (including temperature) for every journaling session. This information will be useful in determining patterns in the data later, so make sure to save each data sheet or field journal entry. 
  2. DRAW WHAT YOU SEE: Students may draw the garden as a whole or focus on specific organisms that they are interested in. Scientific drawings do not need to be perfect representations, but should help to capture the observation alongside notes. Encourage students to draw large pictures so that they can fit in plenty of detail and focus on specific details. Students should label their drawings, and include scale and color, if possible. You may choose to set a timer for five or ten-minute drawing sessions, with one-minute warnings. 
  3. DESCRIBE WHAT HAPPENS: Students should also write what they observe. Encourage students to describe what they see happening, even if they don’t have the scientific vocabulary for it. Some prompts that might be useful while observing include: 
  • How are the insects using the plants?
  • How are organisms behaving towards members of the same species? 
  • How are organisms behaving towards different species? 
  • Which organisms seem to be benefiting from the interaction? 
  • Which organisms seem to be losing out because of the interaction? 
  • Which insects are most abundant?

Halfway Point: Data Analysis

Halfway through the data collection period (this could be one day, one week, months, or the whole school year!), ask students to gather and review all of their data sheets or journal entries. Then, ask them to create graphs, tables, or other figures representing what they observed.


For younger students (Grades Pre-K - 1), ask them to draw each of the different insects they observed. What is similar and what is different about each of these insects and how they behaved in the garden?

For Grades 2 - 5, have students create a bar graph showing the number of species and total individuals of each species they observed. It’s okay if they didn’t set out to count this information each time; they should show the number of organisms they recorded with notes or drawings. After each student has made a bar graph, choose one observation date and compile the information into a class bar graph showing the organisms observed on that date. Invite discussion about the data: What's going on at our butterfly waystation?

For upper elementary (Grades 4-5), consider how the data might be improved. If 30 students saw a butterfly on one day, does that mean there were 30 butterflies in the garden? Why or why not? What are some improvements that can be made to collect better data?


Ask your students to choose what kind of data they’d like to represent in a chart or graph based on what observations they’re most interested in. Options might include graphing the frequency of different types of behavioral interactions, changes observed in behavior or species counts on sunny days vs. cloudy days, or changes in appearances of organisms over time. Then, ask students to write a 1-2-page plan for further investigation of the topic. What problems or issues can they identify with their current data? Are there any gaps they would need to fill in order to learn more? How would they fix data collection issues in future observations? Did this data bring up any other questions they’d like to explore? If so, how would they find out the answer? Students can do their own research and learn more about our entomologists (people who study insects) and the butterflies they study on NHM's YouTube channel:


An important skill related to data collection is data literacy, or being able to understand and communicate findings effectively. Develop a clear research question with your class. What did our findings tell us about the ecosystem of our butterfly waystation or nature garden? Using our data, what might we expect to happen next year around the same time? Depending on the grade level, you can ask your students to:

  • Draw what they think their butterfly waystation or garden might look like in the future (i.e. tomorrow, next week, next month, etc.). Invite students to illustrate specific species of butterflies they think they will find based on their data, or predict the number of different organisms that might be living in the garden ecosystem in future studies.
  • Write their responses to a KWL chart about butterflies: What do I know? What do I want to know? What did I learn?
  • Use the CER framework: develop a claim that answers your class's research question, build on evidence from their data, and use reasoning to support their claim. 
  • Write a short summary of their findings and pair-share with their neighbor, or present to the class for feedback. 
  • Engineer a plan for future development of the butterfly waystation based on evidence from their data (e.g. We counted more monarch butterflies after we planted milkweed in the SE corner of our garden. Next year we will plant two 2’ x 2’ plots of milkweed, one in the SE corner and one in the NE corner, to see  if we increase the number of monarchs in our garden). 

Final Observations

Ask students to adjust their journaling techniques in order to improve data collection. If they wished they had counted each organism during every observation, they should do that. If they found they needed measurements on plant growth, they should make sure to record that going forward. It may be helpful to create a data sheet with designated spaces for the information they want to collect, or take time to make appropriate fields on each page of a journal. At the end of the data collection period, ask students to create graphs using the second half of their data. They should evaluate the changes they made to their collection techniques by comparing the second set of data with the first.

Possible Extensions



K-ESS3-1 & 2, 1- LS1-1, 3-ESS2-1, 3-LS1-1, 3-LS4-2, MS-LS1-4, MSLS2-1, 2 & 4, MS-LS2-5, HS-LS2-1, 2, 6 & 8 


1, 2, 3, 4, 5 


Patterns, Stability & Change, Cause & Effect 


W.K.7, W.2.6, W.2.8, W.3.2, W.3.8, SL.3.4, WHST.6-8-1, WHST.6-8-2, SL.8.1, SL.8.4, WHST.9-12.2, WHST.9-12.7 


MP.2, MP.4, MP.5, K.CC.A, K.MD.B.3, 3.MD.B.3, 6.SP.B.4, 6.SP.B.5, HSS-ID.A.1, HSS-IC.A.1, HSS-IC.B.6, HSN.Q.A.1